Vietnamese (8): My first micro conversation

VVictories, however minor, are good for the morale. So I was very pleased this morning when I found I fully understood the short message sent to me by Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher (not in picture). That is to say, I knew ten of the eleven words (plus the emoji) and I could guess the other one. Guessing words from context is a common thing to do, even in your mother tongue sometimes, so I don’t consider that to be a stain.

Of course, I’d read and understood sentences before, but this was the first time someone actually communicated something to me in Vietnamese, and I got it; this was about something approaching real life, a micro conversation if you like.

Her message was in reply to my recommending a book (which I did in English, though the book is in German). She wrote back,

Cảm ơn bác vì quyển sách hay. Cháu sẽ đọc nó 😀

that is, ‘Thank you for the interesting book. I will read it :D’ My sparkling repartee was không sao – ‘don’t mention it’, ‘you’re welcome’. Still, I would say that under a lenient definition, that qualifies as a genuine dialogue in Vietnamese, with the required two participants.

Next stop: understanding simple spoken sentences. Huyền is trying those on me too, but with spectacularly little success so far.


You can find the other blogposts about my adventures in Vietnamese here.


Vietnamese (7): How one language can help another

DDR-VNI discovered something amazing during last night’s lesson with Huyền, my Vietnamese teacher. We were discussing my pronunciation of the sound written as ư, which I’m not familiar with from other languages. I have trouble vocalising the ư in a way that’s clearly and consistently different from the common or garden u (/u/, as in boot). Several sources, including Huyền herself, had suggested all kinds of tips and tricks for ‘placing’ the vowel properly in my mouth, such as these: Continue reading

Is half the world economy ours?

2146_lgEnglish is often called the world language, and not without reason, yet outside the Anglosphere and parts of Europe, it’s only spoken by an elite. Which makes me wonder: what proportion of world GDP accrues to the minority of the world population that speaks good English?

The question immediately runs into an operationalisational quagmire. Or to put it in language that does not contain the abstract suffix ‘ation’ twice in one word: it’s practically impossible to determine how many people speak English, and there’s bound to be no data whatsoever linking the number of English speakers in each country to their slice of the national pie. However, this need not stop us making a rough and ready estimate. I’ve tried to do just that, and my provisional and highly questionable ballpark statistic would be that 10% of the world population accounts for half of global GDP.

But some linguistically-minded economist, or vice versa, may have come up with something slightly more reliable. Do any of you know of such an effort? I’d love to hear about it!

Oh blast

Little-Bugger-Infant-RedWhat a pity! In Lingo, I claimed that “English has no loanwords from Bulgarian, with the debatable exception of the name of the Bulgarian currency, the lev, which literally means ‘lion’.”

I’ve just discovered that I missed one, and a very colourful one too: bugger. The invaluable Online Etymological Dictionary has this to say about it (I’ve edited the entry for clarity): Continue reading

Struggling with 한글


The Hangul Museum in Seoul

To Romans like us, non-Roman scripts can be quite troublesome. Greek and Cyrillic I find manageable, for reasons that I’ve explained in Lingo, and so is Chinese thanks to pinyin, but most others are too complex for comfort. Now that I’m writing the Korean chapter of my next book, I’m having a brush with Hangul (or Hangeul). Even though all my sources are in English, not being able to read the Korean alphabet remains a handicap that rather tests my inventiveness.

One beautiful but somewhat troubling aspect of the script is that the letters are not placed on a line, but in a block. To the layperson’s eye, Korean looks like Chinese (though the differences are easy to spot once you know what to look out for). When Hangul was developed in the 15th century, Chinese characters had been in use for centuries in Korea, so it must have seemed only natural to make the new script look like them. The visual similarity was probably also intended to overcome the resistance of the traditionalists against the new-fangled way of writing. If so, the trick didn’t work, for Hangul wouldn’t triumph until the 20th century. Continue reading

Irish between ‘very old language’ and ‘1943 political construct’


In July, I visited a 1500-year-old Irish inscription.

Last week I had a Twitter discussion with writer and translator Seanán Ó Coistín, who in an opinion piece in The News Letter, a major newspaper in Northern Ireland, claimed that ‘the Irish language is almost a millennium older than English’. It irritated me and I responded, in the less than gentlemanly tone that Twitter from time to time brings out in me: ‘Can we PLEASE stop claiming that language X is older than language Y? Hardly ever makes sense.’

And it doesn’t. Languages, except the artificial ones such as Esperanto and Klingon, simply don’t have an age. The best we can do is distinguish stages and identify some historic and prehistoric milestones. Continue reading

Vietnamese (6): a bit of ngôn ngữ học

ngThe pronunciation of Vietnamese is hard for several reasons. Every syllable carries one of six tones, indicated by five special accents (à, ả, ã, á, ạ) that turn Vietnamese writing into equal parts text and score. The numerous different vowels and diphthongs are no piece of cake either. To give just one example: the language has a shorter and a longer ‘uh’ sound (spelt as â and ơ respectively).

But while these things look intimidating right from the start, something unexpectedly treacherous lurks behind the seemingly innocuous letter combination ng. As in English and other Germanic languages, this pair stands for the sound heard in sing and singer; the phonetic symbol is ŋ. In Vietnamese, however, this sound can also appear at the beginning of a word, as in ngai for ‘throne’. We don’t do that in English, or any other European language that I’m aware of for that matter. As a result, it’s surprisingly difficult for us, or for me at any rate, to distinguish words beginning with ng from those beginning with n. And since ngai and nai (‘deer’) have different meanings, ignoring the difference is not an option. Continue reading

Vietnamese (5): travel!

Panorama_of_HanoiDid you think I had stopped learning Vietnamese? I can’t blame you, for I thought so too. But I’ve managed to rekindle the dying flame with a bold plan: I’m going to visit Vietnam. That’ll teach me! (Hopefully in the literal rather than the idiomatic sense of the phrase.) I haven’t booked the tickets yet, but the idea is to spend three weeks in Hanoi next spring. And that perspective has already given me just the motivation I needed to go back to my books. Or rather, go back to one and start on another. Continue reading

Less of the many and more much, please

IMG_0731To me, ‘many more’ sounds silly. It reeks of inkhorn grammar, prescribed by some logical-minded schoolmaster who reasoned that if we say ‘many books’ we should also say ‘many more books’ rather than ‘much more books’. I’ve dutifully internalised the rule, but even after many years of obedience in speech and writing, it doesn’t feel quite right.

And I’ve just figured out why. Continue reading